Finally, a Fun Baseball Scandal

Jose Altuve #27 of the Houston Astros hits a home run, his third of the game, against the Boston Red Sox in the seventh inning of game one of the American League Division Series at Minute Maid Park on October 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas.
Jose Altuve, #27 of the Houston Astros hits a home run, his third of the game, against the Boston Red Sox in the seventh inning of game one of the American League Division Series at Minute Maid Park on October 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Photo: Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

One of the most exhausting things about being a baseball fan is the constant debate over whether the game has Lost Its Way. Baseball always seems to be fighting for its own soul. PEDs. Pace of play. Juiced baseballs. Labor vs. management. Too many strikeouts. The shift. The demographic breakdown of the player pool. The unwritten rules. Every conversation about baseball, it seems, is so weighted down with grave concern about what has happened to America’s pastime that it can honestly be exhausting to talk about the sport at all. Any disagreement, however slight, inevitably comes down to some sort of cultural chasm in which what’s really at issue is the basic human value of your opponent — almost as if you’re talking politics.

Which is why the current controversy that’s rocking the sport, I have to say, feels so … glorious and freeing?

Last week, reporters for The Athletic Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich dropped a bombshell on the baseball world with a report that in 2017, the year they won the World Series, had been using live video feeds to steal opposing signs and signal to their hitters what pitches were coming. Their scheme, as detailed by former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, basically the Baseball Whistleblower, was so straightforward that it’s almost embarrassing. The Astros would watch the signs the catcher was giving from a center-field camera, and if the pitch was an off-speed pitch, they would bang a trash can in the dugout for the hitter to hear. If the pitch was a fastball, no garbage-can bang. That’s it. That’s the mechanism. They would hit a trash can with a bat.

But the thing about baseball is that there are literally thousands of hours of footage of baseball games going back decades, footage that is publicly available for fans to sift through at their leisure. So a cottage industry, led by an enterprising and incredibly entertaining baseball YouTuber named Jimmy O’Brien and his growing Jomboy Media empire, has sprung up, attempting to find every example of the Astros’ cheating in 2017 (a year the team won the World Series) by listening for those bangs. And you can hear them. Baseball Prospectus’ Rob Arthur actually ran audio data through a, uh, well, whatever you run audio data through, and discovered that not only could you capture the garbage-can bangs in an audio chart, the bangs actively tracked, on a near-perfect basis, to off-speed pitches thrown. And a Jomboy Media video detailing precisely how the scheme worked has more than 1.6 million views on YouTube and, to this writer’s eyes, appears to definitely damn the Astros.

(I really can’t overstate how much fun Jomboy Media’s videos are, by the way. Before the Astros scandal, O’Brien was most famous for hilarious breakdowns of cartoonishly profane baseball brawls. This description of a Reds brawl back in July made me understand the way baseball is actually played better than anything Red Smith or George Will ever wrote.)

Basically: Baseball now has its Deflategate. And baseball really needed a Deflategate. The Tom Brady deflated-balls scandal was patently ridiculous in every way — it might be the dumbest ongoing sports story of my lifetime — but it was also completely harmless. It felt like an antidote for our current sober age: a cipher in Brady, whom people, in equal measure, could line up in lockstep defense behind or attack with blind, self-righteous fury. Stephen A. Smith could scream about it, we could all Fight Online about it, Brady could use it as further fuel for his competitive fire, and none of it really mattered or made any sort of lasting impact at all. It was just fun for everybody to yell at each other about. The perfect, weightless sports scandal. It didn’t have a human toll, like concussions or domestic violence. It didn’t echo the real world, like labor strife. It didn’t even pose a threat to the game itself, like juicing. It was just a silly story about how much air is in a football.

Baseball teams have been stealing signs and clawing for every competitive advantage as long as they have been adjusting their cups and spitting. The Astros introduced new technology into it, and they make for convenient villains with their data-driven, win-at-all-costs, hedge-fund-bro-asshole mentality witnessed last month with former executive Brandon Taubman’s rant at female baseball reporters about Astros pitcher Roberto Osuna, who had been suspended for domestic violence. (And the team’s ham-fisted initial response to the incident.) But to think that they are the only team in baseball trying everything they can to steal signals from the other team is absurd. The Pittsburgh Pirates were using telescopes and bells to steal signs in the ’70s; this is what teams do. The live feed adds a tech-era feel to it, but this is fundamentally what baseball has always been about: deception and trickery. You can argue, if you want, that the Astros were doing something fundamentally against the spirit of baseball … but man, you are really not having enough fun with this.

Because this is the sort of controversy that generates endless amounts of “evidence” to sift through, the story is already elevating itself into myth. Conspiracies are everywhere. Fans of teams with former Astros executives are nervous that their teams will get drawn into this; the Mets, in perfect Mets fashion, just hired a new manager in Carlos Beltran who played for the 2017 Astros and is already a target of the ongoing investigation. Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish, who was famously knocked around by the Astros in the 2017 World Series, in a fashion that had many observers speculating that he was tipping his pitches, became a trending topic in the wake of the scandal, which led to former MVP Christian Yelich going after him on Twitter, saying, “Nobody needs help facing you.” Twitter fights in baseball! How delicious! What is this, the NBA?

This is the advantage of the NFL having surpassed MLB (and all North American sports) as the national pastime. An NFL scandal, like when Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett hit Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph with his helmet, gets elevated to national disgrace, with desperately serious op-eds about Why Myles Garrett Is Like Donald Trump in national newspapers and references on “Saturday Night Live.” But baseball doesn’t have to be constantly fighting for its soul as much when it’s just another game, rather than a stand-in for something in the national character. The Astros cheating scandal is very much in the spirit of the game itself, and nobody’s falling to the fainting couches and wailing “what about the children?!” They’re instead deep-diving into game video, updating endless Reddit threads, and watching players fight about it on Twitter. Yes, yes, cheating is bad. Yes, yes, the Astros must be punished. Yes, yes, the commissioner’s office must act. But c’mon. After years of people screaming at each other about PEDs and moral rot, a good old-fashioned sign-stealing scandal is just what the doctor ordered. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go dial up a random Astros-Orioles game from three years ago, listen for trash-can bangs, and breathlessly write up my findings. And then we can have a good clean fight about it. Isn’t it great? Isn’t this what it’s supposed to be all about?

Finally, a Fun Baseball Scandal